Teaching your dog to play fetch
Why do we play fetch with our dog? Usually so that they get to run around and tire themselves out, whilst we can sit in the garden and look at our phones, or wander along slowly in the park and look at our phones. Before we consider how to teach our dog to play fetch, or retrieve, let’s think about our motivation and the actual benefits to the dog?
The benefits of playing fetch
Dogs do absolutely love playing fetch, on the whole. Once they get going, some dogs are difficult to stop! Throwtheball, throwtheball, throwtheball! That’s certainly the catchphrase of many Border Collies. My dogs generally play with toys for some periods every day and will demand these are thrown for them, as well as playing tug and chewing on other toys, some of which may be designed for chewing.
It can be very stimulating and entertaining for some dogs. It can get them up and moving, running about and chasing. Sometimes this can be more entertaining than just going for a walk. Lots of people throw balls or toy sticks whilst out walking, as this makes sure that a dog on its own has a bit of a runabout.
Help with recall
Throwing a ball is definitely a way to keep your dog focused on you. If your dog’s recall is not that great, try taking a favourite, squeaky toy with you. When the dog starts wandering off, try squeaking the toy and waving it around excitedly. Then when your dog looks round, say ‘Get it!’ and throw it a short distance away. Your dog should go and get the toy and may then come back to you to have it thrown again. Remember to be exciting!
The downsides of fetch
When I was a child, we threw sticks for our dogs. It’s an obvious thing to do, as dogs love chewing sticks and will often pick these up instinctively. However, we now know that sticks are a really BAD IDEA. They can easily splinter and get stuck in a dog’s throat, choking them or causing horrific injuries.
A simple shift has been made, to ensure that we don’t cause these injuries to our dogs. We know that this is what happens when we throw sticks, so we don’t throw these any more. Instead, we throw tennis balls. We often use a ball chucker, or thrower. Again, these seemed like a great way to get that extra bit of running around.
Sadly, these have also been shown to be more than a dog needs. Too much intense running, jumping and turning can, you’ve guessed it, cause injuries to our dogs. So if you want to throw a ball, that’s fine, but not to excess. Likewise, frisbees are not brilliant, as the dog is leaping around after them.
Managing fetch play with your dog
You can strike a happy medium. This morning Aura found a tennis ball on our walk. Happy day! I popped it into my pocket until we were in the open part of the park. Then I lobbed it a short distance away. Aura brings it back to me and I try and kick it away, without her ‘saving’ it. A great game. She loves running around with the ball in her mouth. Busy loves to steal it if it comes past her. She will then circle Aura until she thinks Aura is not paying attention, when Busy drops it and hopes it won’t be found. Hilarious!
How to teach a retrieve or fetch
- Start at home, in the house or garden. Have some treats as well as the toy and a quiet space, so your dog can concentrate.
- You might start by getting them interested in the toy. Wave it around, holding it out of reach. Squeak it, if it has a squeaker.
- Next, try playing a bit of a tug game with the toy. You want your dog to really want it.
- Then try throwing it a few feet away. Stand still, waiting to see what your dog does. If they go over to the toy, say ‘Yes!’ and give them a treat.
- Keep rewarding your dog for looking at the toy, going near it, sniffing it, and touching it. After giving a ‘Yes!’ and a treat, pick the toy up and wave it around, making it interesting again.
- Once you have generated interest in the toy and your dog is going towards it, you need to wait for them to pick it up.
- When they pick it up, call them – ‘Quin come!’ Usually they will then drop the toy and come back to you for a reward. That’s fine. Reward the dog, then throw the toy again.
- Keep going, and they will gradually get more excited and start bringing the toy nearer to you.
- Finally, the dog will bring the toy to you and either give it to you, or drop it at your feet. The next bit is up to you.
Aura will only bring the toy to my feet and is not brilliant at doing that. The others will give toys to me to throw. If you want it put into your hand, your dog needs to be really motivated for you to throw it and you need to be patient. One of the funniest experiences I’ve had was teaching Sunny to put the toy in my hand. She used to throw the ball near me and then look up expectantly, waiting for the next throw.
I was at a training class and the trainer said, “Put your hand out and wait.” I waited. And waited. Sunny kept looking at me and barking, then picking up the ball and throwing it near me. I kept my hand out, moving it a bit to get her attention. Sunny completely lost her temper and starting shouting at me “You pick it up, it’s just there! Why are you so lazy! Just throw it for me!” Honestly, it was hilarious. Eventually she put it in my hand. But she always got cross if I demanded she do that.
When to end the game
NB: If the dog doesn’t want to give the toy back, try offering a treat in exchange for the toy. Or another toy in exchange. If that doesn’t work, turn away, game over. When the dog does eventually drop the toy, you can pick it up and be exciting again. The object of the game is to play with your dog – it needs to be fun for them too.
When your dog is reluctant to give the toy back, it is often because they have had enough. Some dogs can only handle two or three turns at fetch. Take note of their level of fitness and how stimulated they are. Try not to overdo it?
Formal retrieve and fetch for assistance dogs
If you go to formal obedience training with your dog, or if you have a gundog and want to train them to retrieve, there are different elements you will need to work on. In formal obedience, a dog will need to wait, then go and fetch a dumbbell, picking it up cleanly, bringing it straight back to you, presenting it by seating neatly in front of you and then finishing in the heel position.
Gundogs have to be able to retrieve game from long distance and by going over or through obstacles. Assistance dogs have to be able to pick up and retrieve a wide range of obstacles, such as keys, TV remote controls, phones and clothing. Lots of fun to be had!
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NB: I am not a dog trainer, or a dog behaviourist, just a dog breeder and owner. I can only offer my opinion, based on my experience.